‘Come hell or high water’: Opal Lee says snags will not delay Juneteenth museum

dfwnewsa | February 11, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

 ‘Come hell or high water’: Opal Lee says snags will not delay Juneteenth museum

A rendering of the proposed National Juneteenth Museum in the Historic Southside shows the building’s angular golden roof stretching to the edge of the Southside Community Center. As shown, the development partially overlays land the museum does not own. (Courtesy image | Bjarke Ingels Group)
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A soaring golden roof, star-shaped courtyard and an amphitheater are just a portion of the National Juneteenth Museum’s plans for Fort Worth’s Historic Southside neighborhood.Before museum officials can realize this vision, however, they must address a looming challenge: Part of the proposed museum sits on land the nonprofit does not own — and the brothers who own the land are not interested in selling.“We’ll contribute something to this (project) for the community, but (the lot) is not for sale,” Dorian Villegas, who owns the land with his brother, said. “We were very clear. We’re not selling. It took us a long time to buy these.”But museum officials remain optimistic.“Ideally, we’d like to own the whole block, but we respect the landowner’s right to do what he or she or what his family wants to do with that property,” CEO Jarred Howard said in a call with the Report. “And so we’ll just pivot around him. It won’t deter or impact what we’re doing at all.”


At a February public meeting, Fort Worth activist Opal Lee, the driving force behind the museum and the successful push to get Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday, doubled down on an ambitious timeline of June 19, 2025. “You need to know that the Juneteenth Museum is going to open 2025 come hell or high water,” she said to a round of applause and amens inside the Ella Mae Shamblee Library.

To make that happen, shovels will need to hit the dirt soon. 

Opal Lee’s dream

The stars created both by the opening of the roof and embedded in the terrazzo patio are important symbols present on the Juneteenth flag. The five-point star is also emblematic of Texas. (Courtesy image | Bjarke Ingels Group)

For about 20 years, an early iteration of a Juneteenth museum sat in a single-family home on the corner of Evans Avenue and Rosedale Street.

The space was home to Lee’s small but growing collection of artifacts as well as Juneteenth events and, at one point, computer classes. In early 2023, the building was destroyed in a fire. Most of the collection was spared; it had been cleared out in anticipation of the forthcoming museum.County records show Opal Lee Trust and EELLAPO LLC, which is Lee’s name spelled backward, own the site of the former museum and several other plots on Verbena and Veal streets — the block bordered by Evans and Rosedale.

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Museum renderings show that land as the site of a 50,000-square-foot building that will house a theater, food hall and business incubator in addition to the museum. In that plan, the edges of the golden roof stretch all the way to the Southside Community Center, currently located at 959 E. Rosedale St.Other developments in the neighborhood have long been delayed or stalled. A city-funded effort to redevelop the Historic Southside began in the early 2000s. In December, the city canceled a $70 million contract with Hoque Global, which had planned a mixed-use development in the heart of the Historic Southside.Howard, a fifth-generation Fort Worthian, hopes the museum development will act as a catalyst to help revive an area that was once a hub for Black businesses in the city.“This neighborhood represents the epicenter of Black culture, history and commerce in the city of Fort Worth,” he told the Report in a May 2023 interview after he was named the museum’s CEO. “In the days before African Americans were able to patronize mainstream businesses, they had this neighborhood.”The museum is in the midst of a $70 million fundraising campaign, and Howard reported that the organization is about halfway there in a January panel discussion focused on African American-led museums and cultural institutions. The funding is one sticking point.

“You won’t see us put a shovel in the ground until we’ve got the money required to actually build,” Howard told the panel.

The museum needs $40 million to construct the actual building and is about $5.5 million away from reaching that goal, he said. The remainder of funds will be placed into the museum coffers and an endowment to ensure the project’s long-term sustainability, Howard said.

Despite echoes of past, Opal Lee shares hope for Fort Worth’s future

A different dream


Dorian Villegas and his brother, who declined to be interviewed, have pursued their dream of opening an event space for more than a decade — long before plans for the museum were announced.The pair saw the vacant Drake’s Cafeteria building as an ideal location to start that business.“It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do, having a business like that,” Dorian Villegas said. “It’s close to downtown. It’s a central location close to the highway. … Based on our idea of what we wanted to do, we thought that was a perfect location for (hosting events).”Tarrant County Appraisal District records show that the Villegases purchased the property in 2016. Then, Villegas said, they purchased three other nearby lots as their budget allowed. They own the land at 951 and 953 E. Rosedale St. as well as 950 and 1104 Verbena St. and have plans to add an outdoor patio space and additional parking for the venue.

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The pair had already invested in updating the building’s interior when their project was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have nothing personally against the (museum) project,” Dorian Villegas said. “Obviously, the only thing we were concerned (about) the initial plan was it contained — overlaid — our properties.”

Villegas said his brother drove over to the lots one day in 2021 to mow the lawn and noticed flags on their property indicating that the land had been surveyed. They hadn’t commissioned a survey but brushed it off, thinking that maybe the city of Fort Worth was looking at water or power lines. 

A 2021 rendering shows a different vision for the National Juneteenth Museum’s development plan. Dorian Villegas said he and his brother were sent this rendering shortly after Jarred Howard expressed interest in buying one of their lots. (Courtesy image | Bennett Partners)

Eventually, the museum expressed interest in one lot. Villegas shared with Fort Worth Report an outline of those interactions, which he said started in September 2021.The National Juneteenth Museum declined to comment on negotiations and reiterated their respect and recognition of the family’s right to decline a sale.Before Howard was named CEO of the Juneteenth Museum, he expressed interest in buying the land, Villegas said. Shortly after, the Villegases received a rendering of the museum’s plans. In this early plan, multifamily housing appeared on one lot that the brothers own.Days later, Villegas said Howard made a verbal offer of $150,000 for one lot at the corner of Veal and Verbena streets. That offer was declined.In February 2022, a new offer was made for the brothers’ land, Villegas said, this time including the nearby three additional lots.The brothers remained uninterested in selling their land but said they might consider an offer that reflected the cost of moving their event space and finding another location where they believe they could make a comparable future income.They received an offer of $2 million for all four lots, according to a contract reviewed by the Report. After reviewing the offer, the Villegas brothers responded: No deal. Villegas said the brothers threw out a “ridiculous” number as a counter, hoping that the pressure to sell would end.In 2023 the museum offered $2.1 million.Again, no deal.But the brothers have watched anxiously as the rendering featuring their land continues to circulate and prominent leaders express their support of the project — worrying that they might, again, feel pressured to sell.“Is somebody assuming that they’re going to buy or they own the land?” Dorian Villeagas said. “Again, it’s none of my business what they do, but it really concerned us because obviously … (part) of the project … is (on our land). Somebody will question that, right?”

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‘We’d rather undersell and overdeliver’

Dione Sims, Opal Lee’s granddaughter and National Juneteenth Museum legacy board member, speaks about the National Juneteenth Museum at a Feb. 7 community meeting. Lee stands beside Sims holding a rendering of the museum. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)

Opal Lee remains insistent the museum will open by 2025. The 97-year-old has said many times that she wants to be around to see her vision come to fruition.In an interview with the Report, before declining further comment in a second call, Howard said that 2025 is an ambitious goal and 2026 is what they are promoting. He also stated that new renderings will come as the project continues to evolve.“We’d rather undersell and overdeliver than the opposite, which is why we are so bullish on breaking ground as soon as we possibly can. The only thing that is preventing us from breaking ground is we’ve got to raise more money,” he said. “We’re not going to start a project that we don’t have the money to finish.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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